Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a plan for this season. Manchester United were going to play a 4-2-3-1, press teams high up the field, and look to hit teams quickly as soon as they won possession of the ball.
The team was going to be built around Paul Pogba, playing as a deep lying playmaker, the same role he plays for France, spraying passes around the field to United’s runners. Up front Anthony Martial was going to act as a quasi false 9, opening up space for Marcus Rashford and — based on how United started their first match against Chelsea — a combination of Jesse Lingard, Daniel James, and Mason Greenwood.
Throughout the season there have been elements of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Didier Deschamps’s France, and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in United’s style of play. That’s what good managers do; they look at what others are doing and ask “which parts of that can I incorporate into my team? Which parts fit my players?”
At the start of the season, it was working. Pogba’s 0.47 xGBuildup per 90 and 2.79 key passes per 90 lead the team. His 0.24 xA per 90 is second only behind Juan Mata’s 0.32 (prior to the Norwich match, Pogba still lead the team).
Such is life that even the best laid plans seem to always go astray. Pogba was injured after four games, leaving United with a big creative hole. Fred has done a decent job of replacing the Frenchman, but no matter what combination of Fred, Nemanja Matić, and Scott McTominay Solskjaer has fielded, United’s midfield has been far more functional than creative.
So what do you do when you can’t create from midfield?
You look 33 miles down the M62 and see what the team who’s currently unstoppable are doing.
With Gigi Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita, and James Milner, Liverpool’s midfield is far more functional than creative. They have a great back line and a dynamite front three, but you still need to get the ball to those forwards in positions where they can be dangerous.
That’s why last year Jurgen Klopp redesigned how his team play. He took the onus of creativity out of the midfield and put it on his fullbacks Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. His midfield’s job became simple: keep possession, get the ball wide, and prevent counter attacks.
Liverpool play a 4-3-3 while United play a 4-2-3-1 so things were never going to be identical, but they did already have some similarities, specifically with Anthony Martial.
Playing in the “Roberto Firmino role,” Martial’s primary job isn’t to get on the end of crosses and lead the team in scoring; he’s the first defender, the leader of the press. In possession he has to drop deep, hold up play, and create space for the other forwards.
But there’s still one big difference between the two teams (and note: for this comparison we are not comparing the three players and their skill sets. We’re just comparing the differences in how the three play).
Liverpool’s front three consists of Firmino flanked by Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, two players who are more “wide forwards” than wingers. The right-footed Mane plays on the left with the left-footed Salah playing on the right. Naturally they both like to cut inside.
For United, Martial is typically flanked by Marcus Rashford and Daniel James. Rashford is more of a wide forward, a right footed player who likes to cut inside, but James, when playing down the right, likes to stay wide as a winger.
That changes the dynamic of United’s attack considerably.
If I asked you what the story of United’s season has been so far, odds are you’d tell me something like: “can beat the good teams but can’t beat the bad ones because they can’t break down teams that sit deep.” Of course you would, we’d all say that.
Turns out, over the past three weeks that hasn’t exactly been the case.
It’s easy to sit there and say “well Norwich City and Newcastle United are terrible.” That’s true, and it’s certainly played a factor in this run, so did a slight tactical change. After all, these are the exact kind of sides United have struggled with this season.
(United beat Norwich 3-1 this season, but Norwich played open that game and United killed them on the break. Last week at Old Trafford, their net was a bus parking spot).
In each of those games Solskjaer dropped Daniel James, opting for either Mason Greenwood, who is comfortable cutting on to his left, or the left footed Juan Mata. He did the same thing against Partizan and AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League, a pair of games that saw United run out with 4-0 wins. Yes, it’s inferior opposition but those are also games United should have won 4-0 — they took care of business.
As we all know, Solskjaer took on Wolves twice last year and lost both times. In each of those games United had all of the ball and Wolves killed them on the counter, so Solskjaer’s priority had to be preventing them from doing that.
Against Wolves, he started Daniel James on the left — where he could cut in on his right — Juan Mata on the right, and Mason Greenwood as the no. 10/second forward. Why is this a big deal?
Because Solskjaer took a play out of Liverpool’s playbook.
In all these matches but one, the same image was shown at one point or another. Solskjaer on the touchline urging right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka forward. Solskjaer was taking the onus of creativity out of the middle and asking his fullbacks, Wan-Bissaka specifically, to play as a winger.
And how would United prevent those counter attacks? With their functional but not creative midfield.
When Wan-Bissaka pushed forward, you’d often see Fred dropping back into a makeshift right-back position. It ended up looking like this.
Just watch him here: the ball goes wide to Wan-Bissaka and Fred is fully behind him.
Once United start to switch the field, Fred drifts back to his midfield position.
On this occasion, it’s Juan Mata who drops deep to get possession, and Wan-Bissaka freely pushes up higher than him, well before Mata even gets the ball.
Or how about here. United don’t even have full possession and Fred is already drifting out wide while Wan-Bissaka starts moving up field.
When United went down the left side, things look a bit different. Occasionally you’d see Matić take on the same role as Fred, pulling wide to cover Williams.
The issue here is Matić and his lack of pace could get exposed, even if he has shown that he can still provide cover.
That lack of pace is still a concern, however, which is why usually United operated a bit differently when attacking down the left. Instead of Matić coming over as a quasi-left-back, he’d hold his position in the middle. Fred would then drop in between Victor Lindelöf and Harry Maguire to create a back three, allowing Maguire to push over to the left and provide cover behind Williams.
This isn’t as simple as “overlapping fullbacks providing width.” This is a specific game plan, by design. The fullbacks are going to push up higher, and the forwards are going to tuck inside and be closer to goal. The midfielders are going to sit and cover the fullbacks. The width and creativity is going to come from the fullbacks.
This is exactly how Liverpool play. It was very noticeable in the first half against Wolves last week, and then Brandon Williams did this.
The cross-field fullback to fullback pass that Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson do so expertly.
Of course, just because you are playing the same way as Liverpool doesn’t mean you’re going to have the success that they have. Liverpool’s players have been in this system longer and are more used to it.
They’re also just plainly better. Trent Alexander-Arnold is the best right back in the world when it comes to crossing a ball. No matter who you have out there, they wouldn’t be able to play this role as well as TAA.
Up front the role is referred to as the “Roberto Firmino role” because there’s no one better in the world at playing it than him. Mohamed Salah may be an exceptional talent, but it’s not a coincidence that he’s scored six more goals playing with Firmino than he had in the entire nine years of first team football he played before that. 83 of the 86 goals he’s scored for Liverpool have come with Firmino on the pitch.
The key for this system has been removing Dan James from the right wing. As mentioned earlier, when James plays on the left he hugs the touchline much more like a natural winger. That has made it really awkward when Wan-Bissaka tries to get forward.
Sometimes James just wouldn’t play the overlap until it was too late, giving Wan-Bissaka no option but to go backwards.
Or, he would give the ball to Wan-Bissaka but fail to create any space for him to do anything.
Much of this clunky wing play has been why Wan-Bissaka has developed the reputation for not offering much going forward, but that reputation has been a bit exaggerated.
It started in the first game that United played this style, against Newcastle. Wan-Bissaka got forward and put in a perfect cross for Marcus Rashford’s goal.
Sometimes he puts a dangerous ball in and United just don’t get on the end of it.
Sometimes he lofts in a great cross, to exactly where it should be, but United’s forwards either don’t get to the right area, or completely mistime their jump.
And other times Andreas Pereira just happens to you.
This isn’t to say that Wan-Bissaka has been pumping in great crosses all year and it’s his teammates fault for not finishing them. He’s had plenty of clunkers. But at the same time, he’s only 21. He wasn’t the finished product when United signed him and this is the part of his game that he’s still developing, just like Alexander-Arnold is still developing the defensive parts of his game.
Wan-Bissaka wasn’t going to turn into Alexander-Arnold in only half a season. Hell, he’s never going to be able to cross a ball like Alexander-Arnold.
But he’s getting better, especially when playing behind Greenwood or Mata, two players who give him space on that right side. With Rashford getting injured, we’ll probably see more of Dan James playing from the left, which will give Wan-Bissaka more chances to get forward and work on this part of his game.
That’s a good thing for United. The more dangerous he becomes, the more the burden of creativity will get spread around. It’s already paying dividends.
Solskjaer built a team this year around a midfield lynchpin. When that player went down he needed to come up with a new plan. He’s done that by studying the team with a high octane attack that don’t use their midfielders to generate it.